By Barry O’ Sullivan
In an age of fake news, news customisation, and rampant disregard for standard journalistic practice, a reliable and reputable public service broadcasting outlet along with an appropriately regulated media environment is necessary. Despite all its flaws, there is abundant evidence that Public Service Broadcasting still matters.
Stephen Cushion’s ‘The Democratic Value of News – Why Public Service Media Matter’ is a rich source of quantitative and qualitative studies on the differences between public service broadcasting (PSB) versus commercial broadcasters. These studies present the international trend of the editorial and professional superiority of PSB over their commercial rivals. Research on state-funded television in liberal democracies showed the following:
- Deregulation and free market media environments have consistently created a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of accuracy, professionalism, ethics, and maintaining informative and balanced coverage.
- The democratic value of news is not necessarily enhanced by having an extreme abundance of media platforms or mixing conventional news with a more tabloid-oriented material.
- Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have especially well-informed citizenships in tandem with strong regulation.
- News is the fuel of democratic intercourse, therefore its editorial composure and journalistic construction are critical toward having an informed citizenship.
- PSB fares little better than other outlets in terms of objectivity at crucial political junctures such as wartime or election coverage.
- Commercial channels near-uniformly produce less substantive news and focus their editorial make-up on tabloid material.
- Commercial channels are far more prone to distort, dramatise, exaggerate, ignore, and opinionate news. This suggests an agenda based on partisan political views under the pretence of journalism (i.e. Fox News in the US) or to sensationalise serious topics while putting undue emphasis on unimportant material for the sake of ratings.
- Large sections of global news are ignored by Western PSB and commercial channels such as that of Africa and Latin America. Al-Jazeera and Telesur, both state-funded broadcasters, have succeeded in representing the voices of these regions.
Failures in commercial broadcasting
“Gradual privatisation and deregulation have resulted in increased entertainment driven rather than public service orientated news channels in India. In other words, rather than being a news channel, they are trying to become wholesome entertainment channels even though there are other channels for this purpose” (Joshi, 2007)
The US saw the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This was a piece of legislation designed to maintain editorial standards, a propensity for accuracy and professionalism, and objectivity in reporting and presentation.
Since that time, the US media market has descended into a heavily partisan and agenda-driven industry, with little regard for the fundamental values that journalism is supposed to base itself upon. Commercial channels have taken to creating media celebrities out of anchors who present their own segments over melodramatic productions.
Jones and Salter’s ‘Digital Journalism’ criticised what they termed as the ‘commentariat’ – opinionated, knee-jerk media programmes such as ‘The O’ Reilly Factor’ and ‘Hannity’ which showcase a disregard for truth over ratings, and where bullying guests with rigid political dogmas is a central component of appeal.
“About 82% of Fox election stories included journalistic opinions, compared to about 44% in other network news, 13% in large papers, 7% on CNN, and only 3% on PBS. PBS seems to represent one of the last bastions of traditional news values in American media” – Cushion (2012).
Given the size of these countries and power of media companies within, it seems evident that deregulating the Irish market would leave the nation exposed to possible toxic misinformation and distortion. This is not to say that commercial media shouldn’t be welcomed on some level since they help to alleviate the paternalistic and elitist cultures of monopolistic media organisations (i.e. the introduction of ITN in Britain during the 1950s).
Ireland and the UK
Ireland has access to several commercial channels both foreign and domestic that help foster a healthy competition and tendency toward professionalism in RTE, the state broadcaster, which has a strong relationship with the Irish public. Compare this with the fact that only 3% of American viewers watch PBS.What is problematic in Ireland, Democrats’sis the rise of monopolised private entities that are challenging free speech and the ethical rights of journalists to call out what they see fit to criticise. As Democrats’ Catherine Murphy pointed out, media plurality is visibly under threat in Ireland. The fear of a media ‘chilling effect’ is a justified one, and one that needs to be resisted up to the level of the state as necessary.
“A functioning democracy depends on an active and diverse media both in terms of content and ownership. Yet there is significant evidence that the concentration of media ownership in Ireland is ‘high risk’, which puts the independence of this vital democratic institution in jeopardy,” said Deputy Murphy.
Deregulation allows corporate bully boys to silence not just individual journalists or national institutions, but the public itself. It is anathema to the idea of democracy.
As stated, PSB is not perfect and needs to be challenged by competing commercial media organisations; media plurality can only ever be a positive. Tom Mills’s ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’ details some interesting charges against the supposed bastion of professionalism in journalism, including both historical tendencies toward a pro-government bias as well as structural problems with classist hiring systems.
Mills cites a 2006 study analysing the backgrounds of the top 100 journalists in the UK. It found that:
- 31% work for BBC
- 54% were privately educated
- 45% specifically educated at Oxbridge
- Respondents had a near-universally shared class background
- Evidence of a basis for elite cohesion
- Elite recruiting practices set subtle but powerful precedents
During the Iraq War, the BBC were in a very public spat with the government over the accusation of ‘sexing up’ a certain dossier that fuelled a desire for war, but beyond that, they were as impotent as commercial broadcasters were in providing criticism and objectivity.
The following table denotes the comprehensive failure of the major British media groups to afford both sides of the argument over WMD capability amongst the Hussein regime.
Table – References to claims about WMD capability of Iraq on national UK TV news bulletins in 2003 (Cushion 2012)
Perhaps there is no more pertinent a quote than that of Meirion Jones, a former producer for Panorama: “The fundamental corporate bias (of the BBC) is pro-government, regardless of party.”
Successful models of public service broadcasting
Northern European models have tighter regulation and a track record of a more informed and engaged citizenship has followed. In Germany, both ARD and ZDF have strict public service obligations to carry foreign news coverage. Cushion suggests that this “may even have initially raised the bar for private channels in Germany which continue to devote a comparatively large share of the programs to foreign news, even though the channels are not subsidised nor bound by the same rules.”
PSB in the Netherlands has a percentage basis requirement to carry out varied and pluralistic programming in line with the needs of the society it serves. The country’s PSB is “obliged to offer a general programme to the public containing culture, information, education and entertainment. Article 8 of the Media Decree fixes these elements on percentages of 20 %, 25 %, 5 %, 25 % respectively.”
Britain’s media framework makes for an interesting example given the encroachment of monopolistic commercial rivals such as Sky and the nation’s involvement with major geopolitical events. The framework is flawed of course, but the relative resilience of both the BBC and certain providers such as Channel 4 are both admirable.
One particularly compelling piece of research in the UK – ‘From Callaghan to Credit Crunch: Changing Trends in British Television News 1975-2009’ (Barnett and N.Ramsay) – concluded that television continues to be the most important and trusted source for news both domestic and foreign. The authors found a long-term consistency in the proportion of coverage dedicated to hard news and soft news, as well as a transparent commitment to impartial and balanced allotment to opposing views and political dispositions.
“We, therefore, believe it is vital that governments do not attempt to dismantle the protective frameworks that have so far sustained the relative seriousness of mainstream news agendas which make a very significant contribution to public knowledge and an informed democracy.”
One of the most compelling chapters in Cushion’s work was in relation to elections and how different nations’ media mixes handle such politically sensitive periods. Two general models for presentation, defined as ‘strategy-versus-game’ frames, show the difference between media that are affixed to the superficiality or the substance of elections.
The ‘strategy frame’ refers to news stories that are centred around interpretations of candidates’ or parties’ motives for actions and positions; their strategies and tactics for achieving political or policy goals; how they campaign; and choices regarding leadership and integrity, including news coverage of press behaviour.
The ‘game frame’ refers to news stories that portray politics as a game and are centred around: who is winning or losing elections, in the battle for public opinion, in legislative debates or in politics in general; expressions of public opinion (polls, vox pop); approval or disapproval from interest groups or particular constituencies or publics; or that speculate about electoral or policy outcomes or potential coalitions.
Cushion found that both Belgian and Swedish PSB aired more issue-focused news than their commercial counterparts, “who spent over a half and close to two-thirds of their agendas reporting game-type news during the election campaign period.”
The UK media received similar praise for their performance at election time: “British election coverage on television is almost comprehensively varied from campaign news on US television…it is more ample, more varied, more substantive, more part orientated, less free with unidirectional comment, and more respectful.”
The marketplace for ideas
To have formal structures in place upon a public institution is to preserve and maintain as best an undiluted and impartial media representative as we can. There is a democratic imperative to invest in a public media institution that is ultimately controlled by its reputation for fairness and professionalism amongst the wider citizenship of Ireland. We all need a strong institutional voice separate from the government and ready to call out the failures and crimes of those in a position of power.
That voice, in turn, needs to be consistently challenged and kept on its proverbial toes through rival commercial media companies. No model for a national media infrastructure is perfect, but whichever gets us as close to a Habermasian marketplace of ideas is ultimately in our long-term interests.